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Every year I finish these things later and later. Like I said in my ages-ago first post, it was mediocre year at Filmfest DC. So let’s finally plow through the rest of the films and move onto the 2012 Oscar season.

An Article of Hope, USA, dir: Daniel Cohen

The best of the fest, this documentary kept me utterly spellbound. In 2003, Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli in space on space shuttle Discovery. He and the rest of his crewmates were killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

His space exploits didn’t make Ramon a national hero. His participation in Israeli airstrikes against Iraqi nuclear facilities twenty years prior and a prominent career in the Israeli Air Force had already done so. The film traces this remarkable man’s life as both a man and a national symbol.

Ramon carried with him into space a miniature Torah that survived Bergen Belsen and a pencil drawing made by a teenaged Auschwitz victim. Entwined into the story of Ramon’s preparations to become an astronaut are his thoughtful considerations of what it meant for him as an Israeli, a Jew, and son of Holocaust survivors to launch into the heavens.

The capacity crowd in my screening seemed predominantly Jewish and based on the sniffles I heard throughout the film and the questions asked at the Q&A, they strongly responded to it. As neither a Jew nor someone with connections to Israel, I was still very moved by the film and its portrayal of an extraordinary man. It simply works as a film that should affect any audience.

Clocking in at a few minutes under an hour, I think director Daniel Cohen should consider cutting it down to 40 minutes to qualify it for a Documentary Short Oscar run. But that sounds like that is not in the cards and a PBS showing will hopefully come in the future. Wherever it turns up, you should seek it out. A.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, USA, dir: Pamela Yates

Three minutes into this film my friend’s mom’s face filled the screen. 30 years ago, director Pamela Yates filmed When the Mountains Tremble, a documentary about the then-raging Guatemalan civil war and it was my friend’s mom who helped Yates connect with guerilla groups. Getting shocked out of your seat by a familiar face is an interesting way to begin a documentary.

Would it be cruel to say it was all downhill from there? I don’t wish to be flip about it and maybe linearly the film didn’t truly apex right at the beginning, but it does seem to suffer somewhat from mission creep and loose editing. Yates returns to Guatemala to film a follow-up and finds a country working to mend the rifts of the past. Researchers comb through piles of police files and fields of mass graves. But the wheels of justice turn slowly and it happens that some of the footage Yates shot 30 years prior could help make the case against army commanders who committed horrible atrocities.

The film is a mixture of a making-of documentary of the first film, a chronicle of the pursuit of justice, and a rumination about a documentarian’s responsibilities. I found it to be a bit overly introspective and not constructed well enough to make it all compelling. It’s too much telling instead of showing and it needed a stronger touch in the editing room to keep it from meandering. D+

Free Men (Les hommes libres), France, dir: Ismael Ferroukhi

Every ethnic and social group apparently needs its Nazi resistance film. In the past few years, the Danes had Flame & Citron, the Dutch Black Book, and French Communists had Army of Crime, which played Filmfest DC in 2010. And now French Muslim immigrants have Free Men.

Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet fame, plays Younes, an Algerian immigrant trying his hand in the black market in occupied Paris. After his capture, Nazi police threaten to send him back to Algeria unless he infiltrates a local mosque and reports back on the activities of the imam, a man thought to be involved in local Resistance activities and the smuggling of Jews out of France.

The imam immediately sees what the largely lapsed Younes is up to, but he lets him hang around. As he becomes more integrated in the mosque’s community and reconnects with his faith, Younes begins to join them in their illicit activities.

As a tale about how oppression begets radicalism, it’s a welcome message if not breaking any new ground. Its main sin is a lack of climax. It establishes the characters but all the furtive glances around the mosque and dashes through secret hallways build to a mini-caper at best which whimpers more than enthralls. C+.

Policeman (Ha-shoter), Israel, dir: Nadav Lapid

Let’s finish with the worst of the fest. Policeman endeavors to tell both sides of a terrorist stand-off. The first half of the film follows Yaron, a commander in an elite anti-terrorism taskforce. He’s about to become a father but an inquiry into an incident during a previous mission could derail his career. He and his close-knit unit discuss how to handle it.

Halfway through, the film abruptly shifts focus to Shira, a college-age upper-class radical. She and some chums are planning an attack to bring down Israel’s elites. The details of the plot are withheld from the viewer, but their violent intent is not. The father of one of her co-conspirator realizes something is about to go down and tries to stop them.

Even as Shira and her group launch their plot and Yaron’s unit is called in to combat it, the story never really returns to Yaron, leaving the first half of the film unresolved and totally separate from the second half. With only half of a movie to establish them, I didn’t end up caring about any of the characters. It was sort of neat to see a contemporary Israeli film that depicts some part of life beyond the Palestinian conflict, but otherwise it completely dragged. D.

The 2012 edition of Filmfest DC (aka the Washington DC International Film Festival) wrapped up well over a month ago and I’ve been slow as usual to get up my recaps. But I felt this was sort of an underwhelming festival so it was tougher to get myself moving. While there were few films that I actively disliked, most of the selections I saw were fine if not terribly memorable. I’m not even going to bother guessing which of my colleagues would love or hate a film the most.

I will use my usual method of dividing the films into art house and genre fare, but given this year’s theme of international comedies, my schedule leaned heavily towards the latter.

King Curling (Kong Curling), Norway, dir: Ole Endresen

My desire to see this film began and ended with the word “curling.” Genre, plot, pedigree: none of it matters because how often do you get to see a movie about The Roaring Game?

It turns out King of Curling is an average entry in the silly sports comedy genre with an extra quirky bent, like a Wes Anderson version of Dodgeball by way of Norway. In fact, I suspect director Ole Endresen has much of Anderson’s oeuvre in his DVD collection because there are a lot of similarities in style and theme.

The king of curling is Truls, a perfectionist skip of a championship-winning team. But his obsession with perfection drives him over the edge, landing him into a mental institution for a decade. Upon his release, his wife is given control over his life and he must stay away from the ice. But when he hears his mentor needs a life-saving surgery and the upcoming national curling championships has a winners’ pot of exactly the amount needed, Truls tries to get his team back together while not succumbing to his obsessions.

The curling takes a backseat to everything else in the film (and it doesn’t even bother getting the curling right). It’s really about intensely quirky characters in various stages of melancholy and midlife crises. Truls’s three teammates are now consumed with anger attributed to an inability to find a comfortable pillow, seeking rare birds, or hitting on anything that breathes. He escapes his disintegrating marriage on a motor scooter while wearing a bathrobe. And if all that isn’t enough, the shots and color palette are also Andersonian.

In the end it’s fairly forgettable, wrapped up in its quirks instead of finding true humor or making coherent points. I didn’t hate it or anything, but it didn’t do much for me and even at 75 minutes I couldn’t have seen it lasting even one more minute. C.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne), Norway, dir: Morten Tyldum

Here is a comedic thriller that manages to grow both progressively darker and zanier. Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter in Oslo who also happens to be an art thief, using his business contacts as marks. He partly does this to continue living beyond his means in a beautiful house with a wife that’s out of his league. When he chooses the wrong victim he has a new problem: finding himself being chased by an ex-special forces assassin.

Roger barely manages to survive several run-ins with the super assassin while simultaneously fleeing the police. Part of the charm of Headhunters is that these situations become more twisted, growing more dark and gruesome but also totally bonkers. As his pursuer follows him to a cabin in the woods you may begin to guess how Roger might get away but you will be quite wrong.

The plot’s twists and turns provide great entertainment and the various threads come together in a satisfying if somewhat pat manner. Headhunters opened in US theaters in April and is still in release. I give it a hearty recommendation: A-.

Robot & Frank, USA, dir: Jake Schreier

Sometimes films just can’t live up to their premises. Maybe some premises are just too hard to live up to? Robot & Frank imagines a near future where helper robots are common tools. Frank Langella’s Frank receives a robot from his son when he begins to show signs of dementia. He’s not fond of the imposition until he realizes the robot’s steady mechanics and emotionless logic would be helpful in his prior profession: burglary.

Unfortunately that’s about all there is to it. The film takes aim at a few points but mostly lands only glancing blows. There are potential points to be made about our relationship with technology and how it shifts our relationships with each other, or a broader look at aging and dependence. There’s a potentially poignant moment where Frank can erase the robot’s memory to cover his tracks after his crime but struggles. The robot has become his friend; can he do to the robot what dementia is doing to him? But it doesn’t make much of an impact.

Instead the film settles for cheap humor, a sweet old man with a new friend story, and a cliched look at the impact of dementia (which sure seems to only appear when the film finds it convenient). It’s harmless and pleasant enough, but I wish it gave more thought to what it was trying to do with its knock-out sci-fi concept. C+.

War of the Arrows (Choijongbyeonggi Hwal), South Korea, dir: Kim Han-min

As a child, Nam Yi promises his dying father he will protect his sister, Ja In. Years later, rampaging Manchus take her and much of their village captive and Nam Yi sets off to bring her home. That’s about it for the plot in this Korean historical epic. The story simply serves to move the action along to the next fight sequence.

And for the most part that’s fine. The archery battles are fun and provide something different from the usual sword fighting in these types of movies. There are some clever touches, like an arrow with a huge blunt head that can blast through obstacles like a mini cannonball. All the action sequences tend to blend together into a big blur and it is somewhat hard to care about most of the characters with such a thin plot. But the action is entertaining and the tone is light-hearted enough that I had a nice time. B-.

Eliminate: Archie Cookson, UK, dir: Rob Holder

One of my favorite aspects of In Bruges is the series of bizarre, fatalistic shootouts near the end. None of the antagonists really dislike each other but they are upholding their own version of a moral code. One characters feels it’s his duty to kill another; his target feels like it’s his duty to run, though he doesn’t really care that much. They take time outs to set ground rules based on what they know of the situation at the time: “I’ll escape from the back of the building and you run around and try to shoot me from there,” “For now I’ll just shoot your leg since it doesn’t do me any good to kill you now but I need to hurt you somehow.”

Eliminate: Archie Cookson stretches that idea over the entire movie. Archie is a former British spy with a career in decline. He works in a translation lab with a bottle of whiskey by his side and goes home to an empty apartment after his wife kicked him out. In his hands ends up a recording whose owners will stop at nothing to keep secret. Hence he becomes marked for death.

The hired assassin is an old friend of Archie’s. The guy massacres Archie’s office when looking for the tape but later meets Archie at a diner. They exchange pleasantries and reminisce over better times. It’s not a lamentful conversation but rather somewhat detached and fatalistic, like they both know what their roles are meant to be: killer and victim. The killer gives Archie a day to find and return the tapes in exchange for his family’s safety.

Archie tries to figure out how to save himself, which sets up a number of chatty shootouts and deadpan conversations. All told it’s an interesting idea to pair this sort of tone with a spy thriller. But it doesn’t entirely work as I don’t think there’s enough of interest happening on screen to make this type of humor pay off time and again across 80+ minutes. It’s also not very believable in the world it creates, that the two sides can lob witty barbs as they hunt each other while dozens of innocents are bloodily and casually dispatched for laughs.

The crowd in my theater laughed a good deal during the screening (and a good deal more than me) so it’s safe to say others may very well get a lot more out of it than I did. But it needed somewhat more polish to sustain its ideas to really please me. C.

Superlasico, Denmark, dir: Ole Christian Madsen

Superclasico made it to the final short-list of nine films in the running for a Foreign Language Oscar nomination and I have no idea how. It’s not that I didn’t like it – I found it perfectly pleasant – but I can’t imagine anyone feeling strongly about it. How did so many voters leave loving this Danish film about a man traveling to Argentina to win back his wife so much that it beat out dozens of other movies?

While in Buenos Aires, the hapless hero must contend with his wife’s new beau, a soccer superstar on the verge of a lucrative move to Europe. He wanders about the city being a general sad-sack and encountering zany characters, like a gruff wine producer and a sexually confident old maid. Meanwhile, the couple’s son runs off to rather creepily obsess over a girl and the wife tries to deal with the chaos her life has plunged into.

I enjoyed the film’s use of Buenos Aires, including a fun sequence where everyone gets lost in the Recoleta cemetery, echoing an experience of my own. It manages to be pleasant in an amusingly quirky way. But it seems to be trying to make some points about modern love that never entirely hit. B-.

Cousinhood (Primos), Spain, dir: Daniel Sánchez Arévalo

Buried somewhere in Cousinhood is a fantastic movie. Alas it has to settle for being merely very good. The film uses the now-common formula of making cogent points about modern life in the middle of profane humor and bromances. This story follows Julian, Diego, and Jose, three cousins who repair to the seaside town where they summered as kids after Julian is left at the alter. He experienced first love with Martina in that town and hopes he can rekindle something with her.

While he hopes to mend his broken heart by getting into Martina’s bed, Jose endeavors to manage his hypochondria on his own without his girlfriend and Diego tries to reconcile a local drunk with his prostitute daughter. All sorts of hijinks, witty banter, and dirty jokes ensue. Each of the plot threads evolve and conclude in satisfying, thoughtful ways without straying too far into patness.

Director Sánchez Arévalo was in attendance at this screening. The movie was an autobiographical and cathartic experience for him: a project for himself after getting dumped and harkening back to his own seaside summers. My impression is that he scribbled out a script and he and his friends headed for the coast. The script could have used a little more polish to hit home its punchlines and themes. It also suffers from basic structural deficiencies like a confused timeline that insists the film takes place over the course of a weekend, which seems impossible given the number of events, encounters, and – I think – days and nights depicted. And yet it still overwhelmingly succeeds and left me with only a small wistful thought of what it could have been and ranks as my favorite narrative film of the fest.

A US version would probably get pilloried by critics for its treatment of its women, and appropriately so. Julian and Jose’s girlfriends are harpies. Martina is some sort of surreally selfless and wise fantasy who puts up with Julian’s bullshit for some unknown reason with no apparent regard for her own desires. I guess even in Spain male filmmakers can devise their perfect women: super hot and caring only to make their men happy. But even though she’s a caricature, at least she’s the most positive and likeable character in the film. She isn’t real but the audience will love her. A-.

Okay, okay Film Fest DC has been over for months so let’s get this over. Plus I put a largely anonymous documentary from the Fest on my first half top five list and it’s worth discussing.

This last post will cover the two documentaries I saw at the 2011 Film Fest DC. Conveniently, they are my most and least favorite films of the festival.

Armadillo, Denmark/Sweden, dir: Janus Metz

People may say it’s too reductive, but it’s true: Armadillo is the Danish Restrepo. There’s nothing wrong with that because both are terrific films. Seeing one doesn’t diminish the power of the other. Both follow the tour of duty of a group of soldiers in Afghanistan where the filmmakers get unbelievable access. One battle in Armadillo takes the Danish soldiers into a nearby town, battling Taliban along fences and irrigation ditches. The battle rages all around the camera. The footage is so real and so immersive, if I didn’t know better I might think it was staged.

Several of the soldiers become the stars of the movie, including a leader, a more reserved youngster, and a soldier full of bravado who can’t wait to go and kill some Taliban. The story takes an interesting diversion from Restrepo when the latter man continuously brags about the enemies he killed at close range. When news reaches home about potential atrocities committed by the soldiers, we have an front-and-center view of the reactions of the unit, not to mention our own perspective of what happened since the battle was all caught on film in its full, bloody chaos.

Besides the episode above, Armadillo differentiates itself from its American cousin by more prominently portraying the futility of the Afghan war. The unit fights over the same small area of land, just to have more Taliban come and attack again. The locals are caught in the middle. There’s a certain theatricality to the routine of it all. The soldiers walk through the village. The townspeople file out so the fight can begin. The fight happens. The soldiers return to base. Repeat. The soldiers pondering the point of the war and their involvement are particularly interesting given their nationality.

Director Metz also gives his film a delightfully artistic touch. Beautiful shots of soldiers blowing off steam lit by flares in the dark Afghan night makes for a wonderful segue between chapters.

Armadillo received a brief U.S. theatrical release, but as best I can tell has no DVD release date set. It is available to stream on Amazon. I was entirely engrossed by this film and it’s well worth checking out. A.

Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz), France/Germany/Chile, dir: Patricio Guzman

I tried to see it at last year’s Latin American Film Festival, but it withdrew. I was so happy to see it on the Film Fest list this year. Oh, Past John. You poor, misguided fool.

This documentary is set in the harsh Atacama desert of northern Chile. These days it is one of the world’s major copper producers and its clear skies make it a major destination for astronomical observation. During the Pinochet regime it was also the location of slave labor and death camps. Nostalgia for the Light attempts to reconcile the region’s contrasting history, that a place that is a window to the heavens where man contemplates his place in the universe can also be the location of such awful human cruelty. Where the dry desert preserves remains of natives and murdered dissidents while scientists examine waves that have taken millions of years to reach earth.

The result is a ponderous and excruciatingly boring existential meditation. The problem doesn’t lie with the thesis or story, such as it is, but the execution. We do meet interesting people, including astronomers, philosophers, former dissidents, and family members of disappeared prisoners who comb the sand for bone fragments. But Garcia has too light of an editorial touch and too often lets his subjects ramble on into mumbo jumbo instead of focusing on the insightful bits. Whatever points he wants to make get lots in the slog.

The visuals are no better. Many of the voice-overs are accompanied by long shots of unimpressive night sky or barren desert. At least I had the subtitles to read to keep me engaged with the screen. I don’t know how fluent Spanish speakers would survive. Every transition is a quiet shot that lasts many times longer than it needs to. As viewers, we anticipate the rhythm of editing. A landscape shot between scenes should last a couple beats. Here it could go on for 15 or 20 seconds for no apparent purpose.

I have never attended a film with so many walk outs. Unbelievably it had a small commercial release here, though I can’t find box office figures for it. I know it was playing in DC the week after the film fest. Not that it matters; you shouldn’t see it. D-.

This finally concludes our Film Fest DC coverage. The fest was just so great we needed three months to cover it all. See our other coverage here: John’s look at the genre films and the more arty choices, plus Jared’s take on what he saw.

My recap of April’s Film Fest DC (belatedly) continues with the more serious films. Films that intend to have meaning, explore themes, and/or push outside the usual boundaries of cinema. Some succeed very well. Some succeed at being boring.

Since my colleagues don’t like films where films don’t go boom frequently or deign to move at a pace slower than “breakneck,”* I will identify the Grouch that would hate each film the most.

Julia’s Disappearance (Giulias Verschwinden), Switzerland, dir: Christoph Schaub

I think if someone made Another Year for a wider audience and set it in Zurich, the result would be Julia’s Disappearance, a wonderfully thoughtful and amusing film about aging and youth. Six stories intersect in one Swiss night. The titular Julia rides the bus to meet her friends at a restaurant for a dinner celebrating her 50th birthday. A gentleman her age catches her eye, but his eyes instead wander to a young woman in a revealing dress. An older woman next to Julia quips that at some age women become invisible.

While that older woman goes to her friend’s 80th birthday party at a retirement home, Julia bails on her friends and strikes up a flirtatious conversation with a German businessman at a bar. Meanwhile, her three sets of friends bicker and make sly observations about getting old as they wait for the guest of honor to arrive. Finally, some teenage girls on the initial bus decide to steal some sneakers for a boy they like.

Julia’s Disappearance doesn’t have the level of authenticity of Another Year, but that’s because it’s played more for laughs. The conversations are full of snappy dialogue. It does feel like movie dialogue that real people wouldn’t say, but who cares when it’s so humorous and insightful. Of the four major story threads, the one among the waiting friends in the restaurant is the best. A married couple, a gay couple with a sizable difference in age, and a bachelor growing forgetful in middle age spend their time ragging on each other and other patrons who are chasing youth through a doctor’s scalpel.

I might have done without the teenagers’ subplot, which feels a little superfluous, but Julia’s playful night with the stranger businessman is a delight and the older woman’s birthday party devolves into some amusing physical comedy. It’s not without its contrivances, but it’s infused with charm while holding back on the sentimentality. The result is a very enjoyable and intelligent film. A

Grouch who’d like it the least: Adam. Too talky.

The Hostage of Illusion (Rehén de ilusiones), Argentina, dir: Eliseo Subiela

This movie is the cinematic equivalent to claptrap. The director was in attendance at my screening and a Q&A followed. Audience members kept asking questions about various themes they picked up in the film and each question astounded me further. “You saw that??? The whole thing’s nonsense!” is what a more confident John would have yelled.

The synopsis provided an interesting premise: an author afflicted with writer’s block is haunted by his previous characters who want him to continue their stories. That could have made for a clever story indeed. It also only lasts one scene. The rest of the film follows the author as he embarks on an affair with a crazy woman.

And that’s really all there is to it. There’s no good reason for their attraction as best I can tell. He likes that she’s young, cute, and will sleep with him. She likes him because… she’s crazy? I don’t know. She has some manic and depressive episodes, he frets, the end.

You may find yourself wondering some of the same things my audience asked of the director. What if the woman is herself one of his characters haunting him? So what? What point is a question if it’s totally inconsequential? What if Superman was a Nazi? Who cares? D

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Brian, who’d probably be most offended at how unimportant it all is. I have a sneaking suspicion Jared wouldn’t even hate it all, given that it’s somewhat of a romcom with a version of a manic pixie dream girl.

I Am Slave, UK, dir: Gabriel Range

I was having second thoughts walking into this. It seemed unlikely that this drama about human trafficking wouldn’t turn into a manipulative mess. But boy was I wrong. It’s an entirely effective film that earns its emotion.

Malia is kidnapped from her south Sudanese village as a girl and pressed into service at a rich family’s home in Khartoum. Later she is shipped to another family in London. As she grows up a servant, her father travels through the country looking for her.

The greatest service of this film is addressing the tricky “whys” of human trafficking: why doesn’t she run away? Why doesn’t she fight back? The physical restraints are somewhat minimal. It’s the psychological torture that prevents Malia from doing anything. Her masters tell her that she is worthless, that no one outside will help her, that they will kill her family if she leaves. From our perspective as western viewers, we know these threats to be baseless. To a girl yanked away from the Sudanese countryside at the age of 12, the threats are her prison. She runs away once in London, just to come back. I hope viewers will understand this from Malia’s point of view and not grouse about why she didn’t just leave.

The film also does well to not become preachy or manipulative. The villains are not particularly cartoonish. They’re just housewives who fill similarly subservient roles for their husbands and they are even capable of some kindness. It’s a film that relies on its grounded realism to get its point across. The ending packs a powerful emotional punch and it’s a good sign that the only noteworthy criticism I have is that it should have been longer. A

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Adam. All this anti-slavery talk is just leftist mumbo jumbo. If she didn’t want to be a slave she should have learned a marketable skill.

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), France, dir: Michel Leclerc

I’ve learned that “comedy” doesn’t always mean what I think it means when it comes to French films and film festivals. That didn’t bode well for The Names of Love, billed as a “witty and politically pointed romp of a romantic comedy.” And it gets worse: one of its significant themes is what it means to be French in modern France.

And yet, would you believe me when I say it’s delightful? And very funny? It’s populated by zany characters, none of which are realistic but all are entertaining. At the center is the unlikely love connection between Arthur, an awkward government scientist, and the free-spirited Bahia, an avowed leftist who sleeps with conservatives to convert them to her cause. They bicker and fall for each other and, while it’s not totally believable, it’s sweet enough.

A lot of zany things happen, some of them a little more serious than others. I guess more than anything it touches on themes of identity the most, but there’s a lot going on here, even including some Holocaust discussion. I can’t say it always works, but parts that hit wrong move along quickly. And even if the characters are cinematic creations, they at least have some real problems. B+

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Adam. French mumbo jumbo

Black Bread (Pa negre), Spain, dir: Augustí Villaronga

If Pan’s Labyrinth has taught us anything, it’s that the cruel era after the Spanish Civil War was a time with a lot of… surrealism. And if you’re in the mood for some supernatural Fascist barbarism, give Pan’s a look instead.

In a small Catalonian town, the young Andreu has his life upended when his father must flee the authorities and he goes to live with his grandmother and extended family. The plot revolves around a search for a spirit who may have killed the man Andreu’s father is accused of murdering. There’s a convoluted conspiracy involving some powerful Fascists and various other troubling things Franco’s thugs pull off.

But, honestly, the plot doesn’t matter because it devolves into a dreary slog. It’s never terrible but it lost me about a third of the way through. The supernatural elements never work and I can’t say the real world ones add up to much either. And the ending is pretty dumb. I don’t recall where, but one review I read said the main lesson Andreu learns is that adults can be pretty awful. Sounds about right and also sort of inconsequential. D+

Grouch Who’d Like it the Least: Jared. Boring. I think Brian would at least get something out of the history and Adam would appreciate that some lefties get killed real good.

*Their retort would surely be that I’m a snob. But they are dumbheads. So there.

I always look forward to John’s posts on film festivals, and this year continues to justify that stance.  I was able to see a bunch of the films with him this year, so I figured I’d share what additional comments I could.  I’ll start off with the film I got to that John didn’t, then the one film I saw with he that he hasn’t recapped yet (I hope I don’t steal your thunder!) and then I’ll build on what John wrote for the films we saw together.

Outrage (Autoreiji), Japan, dir: Takeshi Kitano

I don’t know very much about Japanese cinema, so I can’t comment on Kitano’s previous work, other than that I’ve read he started out as a successful stand-up comedian and segued into gangster films for awhile.  I did recognize him, as I’m sure many other people my age would, from his roles in Battle Royale and the TV show “Takeshi’s Castle” (which, of course, was used for MXC)

Anyway, Outrage is a Yakuza movie about warring families/clans (apologies if nomenclature is incorrect) who operate within a larger group of clans.  About a half hour into the film, it becomes clear that the movie is really about who is going to kill who, and how twisted the death scene will be.

My fundamental problem with the film, and I’m not entirely certain to what extent it is a cultural thing, is that it felt like so much of the movie dealt with the bureaucracy of the Yakuza.  The guy at the top would order a kill, or imply that he wanted a kill.  His second in command would relay that order to the appropriate head of family, sometimes changing it slightly.  The head would pass on the order to his second in command, or perhaps ignore it.  The second in command passed it on to his henchmen, sometimes, who would execute the kill.  And then the information would go back up the chain a similar way.  Rinse and repeat.  Like the bloodiest game of telephone ever.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know the characters.  And few of them have any sort of distinguishing characteristic.  So it is hard to care too much when they get offed.

Some of the kills were cool.  But I wouldn’t recommend to see the film just on that basis, there are plenty of movies with better death scenes, I think.   It isn’t a bad film, though, and if you are a mob movie fanatic or completist, it is probably worth your while.  C

Grouch who’d like it the most: If the film actually pulled off what it intended to, Adam.  As is, maybe Brian.

The Names of Love (Le noms de gens), France, dir: Michel Leclerc

As I mentioned, I really do look forward to John’s recaps and I’m curious to hear his thoughts on this film.  But as a romantic comedy with a subplot involving Jewishness, well, this movie was probably a little more up my alley.

Superficially, The Names of Love exhibits many of the hallmarks of the traditional romantic comedy.  Jacques Gamblin is your straitlaced leading man.  He’s a government official in charge of investigating avian deaths, does stuff by the book, and you can tell he is goody-goody because he wears glasses.  Sara Forestier is your impossibly attractive free-spirit of a leading lady.  They meet cute, get together, break up, and I won’t reveal the end.

But the film is much more layered than that.  We learn at the beginning (through flashbacks that are (500 Days of Summer by way of Amelie) that Forestier is the daughter of an Algerian father who came to France after the war and married a hippie.  We also learn that she was sexually abused as a teen, something the family tries to avoid talking about.  Gamblin is the son of two very staid technophiles who always get into better, but failed products (e.g. Betamax).  His immigrant grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, something the family tries to avoid talking about.

I bring all that up because in many ways the movie is about how so much of who we are is where we come from, whether we embrace it (as she does) or hide it (as he does).  But counter to that, the film is also about not letting where come from determine who we are.  There’s also a minor political bent to the film as she employs the tactic of sleeping with members of the opposite political party, in order to eventually persuade them to join her side.  And he continually votes for a losing candidate.

The film is also quite funny at times.  It has, hands down, the funniest Holocaust humor you’ll see all year.  Being French, the film is also maybe a touch more risque than our romantic comedies generally are.  But the nudity actually has a legitimate purpose here.  One other than establishing how crazy hot Sara Forestier is, I promise.  B+

The Robber

Honestly, I didn’t even think the action scenes were all that great.  An interesting premise, to be sure, but it never gets beyond that.  As John pointed out, we never really get to know the main character’s motivations.  Which was a problem to me, since finding out why and how he became a world class marathoner and bank robber were the primary things I wanted to know as the film played on.  I’m not saying this needs a Michael Bay remake or anything, but I could see the film being a lot more successful when done by an American writer and director who could put in some more interesting heist scenes and trim out the German nihilism.  C

Transfer

John nailed this one.  It deals with the kind of sci-fi I love, but fell into the trap of films I often describe as being like a TV pilot: it started creating the beginnings of an interesting world and brought up tons of questions.  The premise isn’t that unlike Dollhouse, for example, especially second season.  As John said, to be more successful, the movie really had to focus in on the questions it wanted to tackle.  And I know it sounds weird, but the dubbing really was distracting.  B-

Home for Christmas

OK.  When you hear something like Love Actually, what do you think?  Probably something along the lines of a light, breezy, fun movie with a bunch of interconnected scenes.  Right?  I think that’s fair.  OK.  The very first scene of Home for Christmas ends with a child in the crosshairs of a sniper.  In any case, I disagree pretty strongly with John, here.  I didn’t think the film did a good job at all of eliciting emotions.  And when it did, it used rather cheap ploys.  It it a dark, dismal, drab tale.  Which can be fine, but this film never got past the surface of anything.   Two things I think Love Actually does well is tie the storylines together enough that it makes sense all the different threads were part of the same movie, and make each thread self-sufficient and interesting enough that it could stand on its own.  This movie does neither.  None of the stories go anywhere and they certainly don’t end up together.  D

Another Film Fest DC has come and gone and this year I did it up right, squeezing twelve screenings into nine days. The DC fest concentrates on international offerings rather than domestic indie films. These run the gamut from overseas blockbusters (Aftershock, the most expensive and successful movie in China’s history, was featured) to smaller, artsier films.

Last year I divided my post-fest recap into genre films that one could imagine finding commercial release in the US had they been filmed in English and the more art house pictures. I liked that divide and no other option for splitting up the films revealed itself this year, so today I’m starting with the genre flicks. Action, sci-fi, crime dramas, and Chrimassy dramedies find their place here with commercial success and sizable budgets in their homelands.

Jared joined me for a few films this year and he can chime in on the one he saw. Otherwise I’ll continue to identify the Grouch who’d like these entertaining films the most (and later we’ll discuss who would hate the most the more thematic artsier films that actually make you think).

The Robber (Der Räuber), Austria/Germany, dir: Benjamin Heisenberg

Andreas Lust plays Johann, the title robber, a newly-released ex-con who combines his loves of running and bank robbery. He trains in his cell and comes out of nowhere as a contender in the Vienna marathon. But many of his training runs involve taking a train (or hijacking a car) to another city and holding up a bank.

The running and robbery scenes are beautiful. They are artfully constructed and help us feel the serenity Johann feels in his runs and the adrenaline rushes in his crimes. That rush is in fact what appears to motivate him in both of his endeavors, but that’s all we really get to know about him. Johann is a blank slate and we see little of his motivation beyond the idea that both activities thrill him.

This lack of development is particularly troublesome when it comes to a relationship he has with a woman he apparently knew before his jail sentence. It means we don’t understand why they are together or even if he cares about her and we don’t care about Johann’s fate. At 90 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome by much, but beyond a few well constructed action scenes I can’t recommend much. C

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’m not sure any would like it much but I could see Brian enjoying it.

Transfer, Germany, dir: Damir Lukacevic

Here is a film that has a terrific premise but still manages to be half-baked. A new technology allows the minds of the old and infirm (and rich) to be transferred to young, healthy bodies. An elderly German couple tentatively tries it out and two attractive Africans are their hosts. The catch is that the hosts wake up and once again have control of their bodies for a few hours per day while their guests sleep.

You can imagine the philosophical issues such a technology might present. The problem is this movie does too and gives a half-hearted attempt at all of them. How do the hosts and guests learn to live with each other? They can sort of feel each other and communicate in writing. What sort of racial issues arise when old white Germans get implanted in young black Africans? Did the hosts truly give up their freedom under their own free will? What happens when your other halves have sex, fall in love, and even get pregnant?

Whenever the film starts to present an interesting point, it veers off to explore something else. The consequence is every theme gets short shrift. I wish it had been reined in thematically or perhaps lasted longer as it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Though, truth be told, none of this was treated very expertly. For example, the feelings the hosts and guests have for their other halves seems to vary wildly. One moment the host male is saying his guest is an interesting guy and the next he’s trying to escape.

I must point out one technical aspect and that is some very distracting dubbing. The host Africans are played by black American actors and they are clearly speaking in English. The German is noticeably dubbed and it sounds dubbed, like a cartoon voiceover. At times I found myself paying more attention to the dubs than the rest of the movie. C+

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Brian would get the most out of the intriguing premise while having less of it ruined for him by how much it falls short.

Easy Money (Snabba Cash), Sweden, dir: Daniel Espinosa

First, marvel at how awesome that Swedish title is. Snabba Cash? That is delightful.

This is a pretty straight-forward crime story. Joel Kinnaman (now on AMC’s “The Killing”) plays JW, an ambitious college student that gets a taste of the good life through some classmates he wants to impress. He falls in with a gang of criminals that is about to up their game significantly by smuggling drugs into Sweden. In doing so they are trampling on the territory of the incumbent Serbian gang and reprisals ensue.

It’s rife with cliches but they never feel particularly burdensome. One Serbian gangster receives custody of his daughter and it makes him want to leave the crime life. JW, for his part, gets over his head pretty quickly and through him a standard “crime doesn’t pay” parable plays.

The film is nicely but not overly stylish. It’s also not terribly thrilling or emotionally resonant, though the climax does somewhat succeed in both regards even if it’s not very surprising. It mostly avoids boredom but a love story and JW’s envy of his richer classmates are introduced and then mostly forgotten. The look at Swedish crime life gave it some novelty for me. An English version of this same movie might end up forgettable, like a We Own the Night. B-

(It has now come to my attention that a remake is in the works, supposedly starring Zac Efron and Rachel Weisz, directed by Daren Aronofsky. Very interesting. On the other hand, news on the project within the last year seems slim and I’m still waiting on a Mark Wahlberg-led remake of last year’s Film Fest DC fave Reykjavik-Rotterdam.)

Grouch who’d like it the most: I think Adam would thoroughly enjoy this crime story.

Win/Win, Netherlands, dir: Jaap van Heusden

This drama set in the world of finance intrigued me but also worried me going in. The catalog promised a hot shot protagonist burdened by the pressure and moral quandaries of the industry. The potential for the film to turn into a brash anti-capitalist screed concerned me. But what I didn’t expect was to be bored.

Oscar Van Rompay plays Ivan, our savant, who is discovered by the firm bigwigs after leaving stock tips on post-its around the office. His rise at the firm and the gradual cracking of his shy exterior are actually quite entertaining. As time goes on his work becomes less fulfilling, helped by the professional and personal downfall of a coworker he has been befriended.

But here’s the issue: there doesn’t seem to be any special reason for his sullenness. He mopes around the city and considers blowing his career, but why? He works a lot, but it looks like he does it because he likes it has a knack for it. The job doesn’t present any specific ethical issues. The worst seems to be that several of his coworkers are kind of dicks, but they’re not terrible. More intense than anything.

So what’s the point? I guess I’m glad it didn’t turn into a ham-fisted treatise on our economic times, but at least that would have had some meat. I know this post is supposed to be about films that, with a language change, could be seen in US multiplexes, but I think for Win/Win to work here it would need a good scandal or something and that would be welcome. D

Grouch who’d like it the most: Adam would dig the business plot the most, but perhaps would also hate Ivan’s career malaise the most.

Home for Christmas (Hjem til jul), Norway, dir: Bent Hamer

This Christmas dramedy alternately warms and breaks the heart. A half dozen story lines intersect in a small Norwegian town on Christmas Eve. There’s a bum going home, a doctor with a struggling marriage, a man juggling a wife and a mistress, and a dad trying to see his estranged kids.

Some of these stories are cozy Christmas stories and some are dark. I don’t think it does anything new and exciting, but the emotion is well-earned and appropriate. The gloomier parts probably disqualify it from the Christmastime rotation of feel-good films, but it’s a good reminder about how the holidays are not happy times for everyone. And sometimes you just want a sadder Christmas movie, you know? Like how my favorite part of Home Alone is when Kevin has that talk with his scary neighbor in the church and finds out he’s a lonely man who misses his granddaughter. It’s a stray poignant, sad moment and Home for Christmas delivers similarly.

Also, there’s a bizarrely graphic sex scene near the beginning. It’s totally strange and incongruous. B

Grouch who’d like it the most: I’d definitely say Jared, but I saw it with him and I know he wasn’t fond of it. I think his problem was that I mentioned I heard it described as “Norwegian Love Actually” and it’s definitely not as cheery as that film. Still, I think it’s more up his alley compared to the other guys.

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